Solving Spring Panfish
March 19, 2018
As the world awakens from winter's slumber, all manner of life begins to bloom and the creative process begins anew.
The watery world is no exception. Melting ice gives way to a revitalized food web: micro-invertebrates and other tiny critters flitter about, vegetation germinates, minnows cruise the shallows, feeding opportunistically on the influx of nutrients, and panfish and larger predators follow.
I've long had a soft spot for spring panfishing, recalling many April afternoons in a 14-foot boat with my dad. He, too, loved to fish early-season crappies and bluegills. Year after year, we'd slip the boat into primitive launches or gravel-road easements, keeping a mess of fish for a fish fry with family and friends. I carry on this tradition with my kids, paying close attention to nature's signals for the right time to find ravenous crappies and bluegills in shallow backwaters.
Although anglers have a tendency to refer to any shallow springtime panfish movement as spawning behavior, there's much more to the pursuit than targeting bedding fish. The early period when ice or cold water gives way to shallow movements is followed by prespawn behavior, the spawn itself, and finally postspawn.
I had the itch to catch spring panfish bad last year, so I launched the boat even before the ice had completely left the main lake. I discovered that crappie behavior goes unnoticed by many who wait weeks until crappies are locked in nesting and spawning behavior.
Although the water was barely 40°F in the small bay on the northwest side of the lake, I discovered a large school of crappies in 3 to 4 feet of water chasing minnows. The fish busted the surface, slashing at the forage, and were difficult to approach in the clear water without spooking them. After much trial and error, I made long casts ahead of them with a fixed float, Custom Jigs & Spins Rat Finkee jig, and small crappie minnow on a 9-foot St. Croix Panfish Series rod. Although difficult, I put some fish in the boat. The next two days I returned, but the minnows were gone — and with them, the crappies. Slipping outside the ice-free bay, I found the crappies suspended over 20 feet of water with my electronics.
I bring this up to illustrate that the period immediately after ice-out is a bit mysterious. You can still find bluegills and crappies in the deep, main basin and weededge locations you may have caught them during last ice, but the shallows may also be teeming with unsullied fish.
"I catch some of the biggest crappies of the year right after ice-out," says northern Minnesota Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "Warm water in shallow areas brings things to life quickly thanks to early runoff and little feeder creeks. That brings in clouds of baitfish to feed on microinvertebrates and bugs even before the ice goes off. The bite can be a continuation of the late-ice feeding frenzy, but in shallower water. These areas warm first and so does the fishing.
"Again, even before ice-out, you might have an area with current that you can't ice-fish where the vegetation is already starting to grow. Sunshine and current can speed things up. That's where you want to be as soon as you can cast in open water," he says.
Another area worth investigation on lakes, reservoirs, and rivers are boat harbors. "Boat harbors tend to warm quickly, too," Brosdahl says. "They can be a couple degrees warmer than the surrounding waters, attracting minnows and crappies in pursuit. The fish follow way before there's any kind of spawn-related thing going on. It doesn't take long for these little microcosms of the lake to heat up, even if the main lake is a refrigerator."
Not Always Northern
Textbook thinking points most panfish anglers to northern bays in spring, but that doesn't mean crappies and bluegills can't be found in other locations, even if they don't get as much of the early-season sun.
"North bays get most of the spring panfish pressure, but don't overlook southern bays," Brosdahl says. Also check where flowing water enters your lake. In Minnesota, most of the lakes north of the Laurentian Divide flow north, while those south of it flow south. So, in a lot of northern lakes, life starts where the rivers enter the southern parts of lakes. But there can be activity anywhere. On Mille Lacs, the fish come in north to south, east to west, or wherever there's a harbor, but some of the biggest movements of panfish happen on the south side." You have to look at each lake. If there's a creek flowing in on the south end, that can open up just as early as a northern bay.
Given the absence of full sun, current, and early vegetation growth, ice-out panfish relate to other forms of cover. "Until we start getting more weedgrowth, crappies seek old wild rice, pencil reeds, and bulrushes," he says. "They can relate to other old vegetation, too, like last year's cabbage or coontail. After a long winter with a lot of snow, cover like laydowns, standing timber, and flooded fence rows can be dynamite. And in some waters, crappies hold by the edges of broken rock that usually has vegetation on top. These are spots where they can hide from shallow-cruising pike and ambush minnows and insects."
Cracking Cold-Front Bites
So much of spring panfish movements depend on weather. Early warming periods often mean a jump-start to crappie and bluegill traffic into the shallows, long before there's any vegetation. "When it warms quickly it's easy for fish to push up right next to shore into a foot of water, often in locations that are hard to reach from a boat, even from shore. Waders can be helpful in these situations," Brosdahl says.
One thing you can count on in spring is inconsistent weather. You might be fishing in a t-shirt one day and ice-fishing bibs the next. Cold fronts keep many anglers inside because it pushes panfish deeper and locks lips.
"During cold fronts the fish don't move far," he says. "They might slip out just a little deeper, maybe from a couple feet of water to 6 or 10 feet. Sometimes they move out over even deeper water, too. Look around with your electronics when the shallows are vacant. But the fish don't move too far."
This past spring, a buddy and I caught in pencil reeds and shallow coontail, but the temperature dropped 20 degrees overnight and that lasted for days. We returned to the bay to find our shallow spots vacant of fish. Reluctant to believe the fish were far away, I turned on my side-imaging and idled around the bay searching for fish. We found two sunken brushpiles, likely the result of beaver activity. The piles ran from 8 to 15 feet of water along a break, just off a bed of pencil reeds. They were loaded with crappies — the same fish that had been in 2 to 4 feet of water only a few days prior. We sized down to plain Aberdeen-style hooks and crappie minnows on slipfloat rigs. The results were good.
"Deeper, submerged beaver piles can be crappie magnets, especially during cold fronts," Brosdahl says. "They hold to whatever the deepest cover is: vegetation, wood, a steep break, rock. That's a form of security for them until the weather stabilizes and they can move back shallow."
He uses a slipfloat rig 90 percent of the time in cold-front conditions. "I typically start with a slipbobber, Northland Fire-Fly Jig, and a small crappie minnow," he says. "A micro-Kahle or Aberdeen-style hook may be the way to go if they're tight-lipped — especially if there are big crappies around — and an ice fishing jig like a glow Northland Bro Bling jig or a Gill-Getter or Mud Bug is a great option, too. But a Fire-Fly Jig with a waxworm or little crappie minnow is my favorite finesse bite approach."
"I never hook a minnow through the lip unless I'm fishing for crappies, which is perfect to keep the minnow wiggling," Brosdahl explains. "A benefit of lip-hooking is you always get a good hook-set. I pin the bait in place by adding a small split-shot 1.5 to 2 feet above the jig so the minnow can swim about, which triggers crappies. I keep my minnows in an aerated Frabill bucket. They should be lively and jumping out of your hand. If the fish are biting well, I bump up to a fathead-size crappie minnow, but typically the cold-front situations call for the smallest bait you've got."
He frequents baitshops that sort shiners or crappie minnows down into a diminutive "sliver" size. "Some baitshops have a tank of tiny minnows for cold-front situations. These sorts of baitshops now are rare. When you find one, spend money there to support them."
He shares another cold-front trick he turns to when fish are in a negative feeding mood. "I pinch a crappie minnow in half and use just the tail end. Just past the dorsal fin before it gets too thick. I've used heads, but tails work better. They're thin and wispy. I put that on the back of a Fire-Fly or Gypsi Jig and the tinsel flash-abou and scent-puffing tail combo triggers bites."
And when he's out of sliver-size minnows he turns to waxworms on feather jigs. "Waxworms have a tendency to tear off when you're casting so I run the hook in from the top of the tail and turn the jig, running the hook back up through the waxworm to keep it pinned. Maggots don't work as well. Not as much juice attractant."
Sometimes a slow rate of fall can seal the deal, too. "A Northland Impulse Helium Fly in Mayfly or Stonefly with built-in scent is a good cold-front option, too. It falls super slow. Put a minnow tail or waxy on that and it's a real double-tap on panfish shoulders."
By the time water temperatures reach the high 50s to low 60s, crappies and bluegills have taken up residence in shallow water. This transition from ice-out to prespawn to spawn is an exciting time, providing some of the best action of the year.
"During prespawn, crappies and bluegills seek vegetation," Brosdahl says. "Crappies seek more cover and protection than bluegills for their conjugal business. I look for pencil reeds, but not just any. You get a gentle slapping of wind and waves and crappies push back 4 to 5 feet back into the second layer of pencil reeds. That's where you find them — even better if there's cabbage, milfoil, maidencane, mixed over hard bottom. My favorite areas are those that look like a panfish angler designed them — cabbage, bulrushes, reeds, cane, and rocks, all mixed in with quick access to deeper water. These are the same places you catch rock bass, too.
"This diversity in depth and vegetation is also why Bro loves slipfloat rigs. "Slipfloats are versatile," he says. "You can set them shallow to deep to stay on crappies, which can move around a lot. They also allow me to slip through reeds and other vegetation, using a long rod to drop into tight spots and pluck fish out, or make long casts when fish are spooky. I like braid for longer casts and a fluoro leader that's slightly less in break strength than my braid. A 7- to 9-foot St. Croix Panfish Series spinning rod is great for fishing the edges during prespawn, and a 10- or 11-footer is great for plucking fish out of pockets, especially when you sight-fish."
As the water hits the low 60s, crappies have selected their spawning habitat, males making nests, females eying their progress. "The females come in, release their eggs, and they're gone," he says. "Males linger, guard nests, and feed at the same time, which makes them readily catchable. Females turn off for a couple days, moving to the outside of the weeds, a point, or whatever deeper cover is nearby. But after a few days of recovering from the spawn, females start biting again. Look for the healthy vegetation not too far from where they spawned. Often, you find a bunch of females in formation like a squadron of fighter jets, ready to eat at any time."
THE POSTSPAWN PERIOD
Following the spawn and a short period of nest-guarding, males vacate the shallows for outer weedbeds, signaling an end to the shallow crappie bite. "Postspawn can be tough until you find them, especially on lakes with lots of vegetation," Brosdahl says. "Some waters have miles of weedbeds. Find the greenest stuff near deep water. Coontail and cabbage become huge players. Crappies can spread out and hide there. But imagine you're a crappie and look for the thickest and greenest mix of submergent vegetation you can find and fish near the deepest edge. That's a formula that always works."
It's on the edges of the thickest jungle and steep breaks that crappies and bluegills position for most of the summer until vegetation begins to burn out and more algal growth occurs. "As the plants begin to turn, crappies push out into areas 20 to 50 feet deep and suspend, returning to the vegetation and edges to feed each evening," he says. "This late-summer bite is a lot less predictable and less fun than the spring fling."
*Jim Edlund, Becker, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler and freelance writer who contributes to many In-Fisherman publications.